One of the many intriguing announcements from Sony at their Gamescom press conference was Helldivers from Arrowhead Game Studios. The Swedish studio best known for Magicka, has grown on the back of the success of the game that started out as a student project. The most telling evidence of their growth is the fact that they have partnered up with Sony for the PlayStation exclusive Helldivers.
You first thought upon seeing Helldivers is that it's nothing like Magicka or The Showdown Effect, but look beyond the tin wrap of the sci-fi setting and you'll find that this game is a natural fit for a studio that is known for humour and friendly fire.
"Magicka was based on that scene in The Lords of the Ring with the troll in Moria, we thought "what if there were four wizards?". Helldivers is inspired by Starship Troopers, a really great book," says Arrowhead Game Studio's Johan Pilestedt.
He explains that the team used to be afraid of sticking too closely to the source of their inspiration, but soon realised no matter how you go about it the work you do will turn into something unique once you start working on it.
So while Helldivers is a top-down Starship Troopers inspired shooter, if you boil it down to a sentence it is also something entirely different and, above all, an Arrowhead title. You're part of a squad of up to four sent to a planet that's as hostile as Klendathu. Your squad has a number of missions to complete before it's time to haul ass to the landing zone and board the shuttle.
"It is unforgiving, especially when you're not really thinking five seconds ahead," explains Pilestedt. "If you just do things on a short-term basis then you will eventually screw things up for both yourself and your friends. This happen even when you join a game, say two people are playing and you grab a controller and press start. You drop in on one of these helipods and you smash both other guys. That has actually happened several times. So just adding that extra guy to the mix isn't usually... I mean it's not a win-win situation, it could be quite a devastating move."
True enough for the unsuspecting players I joined for a game of Helldivers. Within seconds one of them was dead. Shot in the back. Nothing much to worry about if one of the other players has the revive ability equipped. And that takes us to the most interesting and innovative feature of the game. The stratagems are abilities you take with you down to the surface and they allow players to customise their roles - in total there will be over 30 different options to chose from - but in this demo we were playing around with a set loadout that thankfully included revive. Another strategem we got to sample was the turrets, and walking in front of one of those isn't advisable.
Much like with Magicka there is skill to pulling off the strategems in pressure situations (and there are plenty of those situations to go around). Each strategem in this demo consisted of a combination of four directions on the d-pad. Once executed your orbital strike, turret or similar hardware drops to the surface.
"It's like a die roll in a board game," explains Pilestedt. "Like you have the suspense of inputting the combination that's sort of shaking the die. And then you use the ability and then you have a duration of maybe 5 up to 15 seconds before you actually get what you ordered. Because they need to prepare it in space. No. It's basically just because we want that suspense."
Helldivers makes use of the Bitsquid multi-platform engine that you may have seen in Arrowhead's most recent game, The Showdown Effect, and medieval war simulator War of the Roses from Fatshark; working with the engine will be surely be a great help as the game is planned for three PlayStation platforms in 2014. It's a bold move by a team who's only console experience involved a cancelled port of the original Magicka.
The procedurally generated maps and co-operative gameplay tie-in to a greater war effort that will play out across the entirety of the game. Wildly ambitious and very cool if Arrowhead can pull it off.
"Everybody that's playing the game are trying to win this war against these three alien species," says Pilestedt. "And you push these borders together. That will create a global effort to win the war. Each mission that you select is, or rather you select a planet that you are personally responsible for handling, and during this mission you have up to maybe 7, 10 missions to do or as low as 2. And these missions are procedurally generated so every mission follows the same formula."
Missions vary from installations that need to be blown up, targets that need to be taken out, and inviduals that need to be saved and returned to the shuttle. There are day and night missions. Basically anything you've seen in movies like Aliens and Starship Troopers or any number of scenarios found in other movies, games or books that deal with heroics. Mobs wander the surface, and once your objectives are completed all that's left to do is to call the shuttle. This triggers a timer and a response from the remaining enemies, who naturally gravitate towards the landing zone. More enemies spawn and the last few seconds until the shuttle arrives are glorious mayhem.
My bleeding character is crawling backwards up the ramp to safety onboard the shuttle. He's the last man to make it. Mission complete. Bring on the brain bugs.